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MGH remains city’s advertising company for another year

If you are in Ocean City this week, you may notice a couple of changes as you drive down Coastal Highway. The speed limit, normally 40 mph through North Ocean City, has been reduced to 30 mph, and Downtown, the speed limit has also been reduced. This is due to the expected, unauthorized H2Oi Pop-Up Rally.  It is reasonable to expect heavier than usual traffic, noise and strict enforcement of vehicle laws during the week and weekend.

ZACK HOOPES ¦ Staff Writer

(Sept. 28, 2012) The city will be sticking with MGH Advertising for at least another year, as the City Council eased up Tuesday on its desire to put the city’s $4 million marketing contract back out to bid before the end of 2012.

The reversal came at the request of the city’s Tourism Advisory Board, a committee of business stakeholders whose recommendations, while non-binding, carry significant weight within City Hall.

“We’re not opposed to going to RFP [Request for Proposals] with it,” said TAB chair Greg Shockley. “We would ask that you reconsider and keep Andy’s [MGH President Andy Malis] contract for another year, but start the RFP process now and have a whole year to do it.”

MGH has been the city’s marketing firm for the past 10 years, coordinating the resort’s public presence outside the island with everything from TV ads in Baltimore to billboards on the Jersey Turnpike. The company’s contract was renewed in 2010 for another two years and would automatically extend for another year at the end of 2012, unless the city gives MGH 120 days’ notice that it is considering opting out and is seeking alternative proposals from other agencies.

In August, the council voted 4-3, with council members Joe Hall, Brent Ashley, Jim Hall, and Margaret Pillas in favor and Doug Cymek, Mary Knight, and Lloyd Martin opposed, to give MGH notice. The agency’s status has always been somewhat of a hot potato, since MGH’s success – and ergo the success of the city government in its role as the resort’s primary destination marketer – carries with it considerable political import.

Of particular concern is that MGH says it has certain sunk production costs that will still need to be utilized even if it is no longer in charge, less the city throw away money. Specifically, the agency has invested in designing and producing the city’s ad campaign featuring Rodney the Lifeguard, who acts as if he is rescuing people from the ocean when he is actually rescuing them from their mundane office or home tasks and bringing them to the resort.

Malis has said that Rodney still has another year of commercial viability. But the rights to the character are owned by the city, meaning that another agency could assume operation of the Rodney campaign if Malis were to exit.

“If we’re truly looking for a new advertising agency, we should not handcuff them with Rodney,” Shockley said Tuesday. “From what we see and what Andy has told us, we have a year of Rodney ‘left in the can,’ so to speak.”

“We would be re-doing all the production [if the campaign was changed]. It’s tough to hire a new agency. You have questions about what we’re using [currently] and then you have to tie the new work to the same product.”

Timing was also a concern, with Shockley noting that the mid-contract period of 120 days was really not enough to do the selection process justice.

“My fear, and TAB’s fear, is that we get jammed up on the 31st and we can’t make the best decision under pressure,” he said.

But the majority’s previous opinion – that taking a contractor at his word and not shopping around was simply bad business – was reiterated.

“I think it’s the right process [to go to bid immediately],” said Councilman Joe Hall. “In the last process, every single agency that came down said ‘there is a transition period, but we do have time and we’re not going to throw everything out the door and leave you hanging.’

“And in that process, Andy earned the trust of the council to go again [with a new contract]. He came in more lively and invigorated than he had been before. He stated himself that he does this all the time. He not only has clients that look elsewhere but he also bids on other places and contracts that other people are getting.”

“If you haven’t shopped around for insurance in the last five years, you’re foolish,” agreed Council President Jim Hall. “I think it’s just prudent to go outside and look after 10 years with the same guy. It sharpens the pencil on price, too.”

The reversal, then, seemed to come only after City Manager David Recor expressed his concern that any new marketing strategy would be an integral part of the city’s strategic plan, an initiative that Recor is developing, but which will not be functional until the spring.

“I think [TAB’s] recommendation is a solid one,” Recor said. “All of this will tie directly to the five-year strategic plan. This discussion is definitely related.”

“The result of this is going to be very integral to the plan,” concurred Councilwoman Mary Knight. “How we want to advertise in the future, who we want to advertise to … if nobody’s going to have this info, we’re putting the cart before the horse.”

“I don’t have a problem with putting this out to bid, it’s just the timing. We’re going to have very little time to assess these people [who bid],” said Councilman Doug Cymek. “I’d really like to consider, in the future, 180 days’ notice, if not more.”

Jim Hall seemed to think this was a good middle ground, and proposed, if a decision on MGH was to be delayed, that future contracts be revised to require the city to give itself more lead-time by making a decision at 180 days out, instead of 120.

The council supported the measure 5- 2, with Joe Hall and Ashley still opposed.

“I don’t buy the tie-in,” Joe Hall said. “The fact is that we’re going to be advertising next year no matter what is in place with the strategic plan … each time there’s a challenge coming up, we have to postpone because we can’t handle it. If it’s not the right time, there’s just going to be a conversation next September that that’s not the right time either.”

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